Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Blood Bowl (Nintendo DS)

Games Workshop's Warhammer is a juggernaut of a franchise. Its runaway success has changed the company from a single hobby shop in Hammersmith to an international corporation, and the game has expanded beyond the tabletop into board games, role-playing games, video games, MMORPGs, novels, comics, and even, in the latter stages of 2010, a straight-to-dvd film, although reviews haven't been too good on that last one.

Warhammer is the company's core product, but there's also a horde of lesser games, lost to the mists of time and commanding high prices on eBay, stuff like Chainsaw Warrior and Lost Patrol. Somewhere in between is a middle tier of games that have never been huge money-spinners, but have remained popular enough to remain in production, on and off, throughout the company's life. Blood Bowl is one of these, a Warhammer-ised version of American football, with orcs and goblins beating seven shades out of dwarves and elves, and with maybe a touchdown or two thrown in. In the game, players take it in turns to advance their teams up the pitch, seize the ball, and through applied brutality, agile footwork, or dead-eye accuracy, attempt to get the ball into the end zone to score. Their chances of doing so are modified by their teams' skills and statistics as well as a significant amount of luck, as generated by the rolling of dice.

In 2009, Blood Bowl was released to a number of video game platforms, including this DS version. It lacks the 3D environment of the PC and console releases, opting for a isometric viewpoint; while some may view this as a negative, and it does at first glance seem like a retrograde move back to the 16-bit era and a waste of the DS' capabilities, the viewpoint works in the game's favour, allowing for a wider field -- pun intended -- of vision, as befits what is, after all, a game of strategy.

Similarly, the lack of a real-time mode turns out to be a missing feature which is not missed, as the end result is something which is more or less a straight translation of the board game into electronic form. The original board game is strong enough that 3D graphics and arcade-style gameplay are not improvements but unnecessary distractions, and for whatever reason they were removed from the DS edition, it has resulted in a better game. The fidelity to the source material also means that those players who want a quick game of Blood Bowl, but can't find an opponent or don't have the space to set up the board, can instead whip out the DS and indulge. There is also a rudimentary local multiplayer option, as well as a "hot seat" mode, which may be a misnomer on a portable system.

All that said, some features are indeed missed, such as the wilder players and options some of the teams bring along with them, and while eight types of team are included it is disappointing that evocative races such as the dark elves and undead have been overlooked. It is possible however that only those familiar with the original game will miss these bells and whistles, as the core gameplay offers plenty of complexity to keep strategic thinkers happy. On the other hand, those same strategic thinkers may not be quite as happy with the difficulty of the game; while the single-player mode will prove a challenge due to an aggressive CPU, the AI does on occasion seem to engage in some wild and hare-brained schemes, such as sending players to the far corners of the pitch to await passes which are never likely to come, or withdrawing strong blockers from the front lines, and so on.

The game benefits from good graphics, with good designs and smooth animation, although it would have been nice to have some variation in how the players moved. There are some neat cut scenes during the game, with the referee stepping in to conduct the opening coin toss and adjudicate fouls, and so on, and there are is a brief appearance from the game's commentators, familiar to those who have played the board game. Perhaps the most important cut scene of all is that which plays when a touchdown is scored, and alas this is the most disappointing, with dodgy-looking cheerleaders and no variation in the animation at all; it would have been a neat touch to have included burly orc cheerleaders, ethereal elven cheerleaders, bearded dwarven cheerleaders, and so on. The game also lacks much in the way of music, with only one or two tunes in evidence, although perhaps a wise move to shun in-game music, which could have become annoying with individual matches taking up to an hour to play.

This lack of polish can sometimes be an annoyance, but the game survives. There are some glitches in the code that may prove to be a more fatal issue. Outside a match, the game can sometimes take a long time to move between screens, which could be put down to loading times were it not for the simple fact that Blood Bowl is a cartridge-based title. At times, the game can lock up during these pauses, necessitating a restart and the subsequent loss of data, most annoying during a league game where a team has built up money and experience over a season. Other editions have been fixed by updates, and a new version of the game was released in 2010, but neither have made it to the DS alas.

All in all, Blood Bowl on the DS is a very basic game, and the lack of features and polish can be a bit disappointing at times. That said, the core gameplay is strong, a faithful adaptation of a great board game and at the end of the day, it's the gameplay that matters most.

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